When I was twelve years old, I sold my soul to the devil to become a virtuoso violinist.
It wasn’t at a crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to be a great blues musician, and it wasn’t like the virtuoso violinist Niccolò Paganini who supposedly sold his soul to the devil to be the best violinist to have walked the earth. It was actually by accident when I was buying a violin for the first time. I had started playing two years earlier with a rental, but I broke my left arm a month into lessons and fell behind because the cast my arm was put in made playing impossible, and I never seemed able to catch up. In my frustration, I went out to buy a fiddle of my own.
That’s when I first met the devil. I recognized him from his many interviews on CNN and all those McDonald’s commercials. He was in the corner of the music store flipping through sheet music and smoking cigarettes, dressed like a graphic design major with a white fedora and khakis too tight for his goat legs. The salespeople behind the counter were busy restocking saxophone reeds, and didn’t seem bothered by him.
The devil asked me if I was there to buy a guitar so I could start a band.
I told him I was there to buy a violin.
The devil said he could work with that.
I asked the devil if he could recommend a good violin for me, wondering if I would be better off making a choice on my own instead of resorting to the devil’s flashy over-the-top tastes. He pointed to one in the far right of the room. It was the color of cedar and orange peels, like a crosscut of a ponderosa pine tree. At the time, I knew nothing of the millions of dollars people paid for Guarneris and Amatis and Strads, the lifelong dedication that went into a delicately built four-stringed machine of wood and glue that only improves through its regular use. All I knew was that I wanted to master the instrument as quickly and cheaply as possible to catch up to my more musical friends.
Hesitantly, I bought the devil’s recommendation; it sold for 250 dollars and inside the instrument where the maker’s name was supposed to be was a card reading “Factory Made in China.” I was pleased with his choice because it looked expensive but actually wasn’t, which reflected the kind of musician I would become. I wanted to look like I put years of effort into my brilliant talent, and I wanted that talent immediately.
Less hesitantly, I agreed then and there to sell my soul to him in exchange for his making me into the most talented violinist to have lived.
Three years later, I had not become a virtuoso violinist, or even a decent one. Every so often, I ran into the devil at the music store and I confronted him about my lack of success. He told me to keep waiting, that I just had to find the right venue for my dormant brilliance.
My frustrations surfaced my first year of high school, the year I could audition for regional orchestra. I wanted the praise that came with the violin’s mastery, the praise the upper-class students received for their years of daily practice, and I wanted it immediately. The devil assured me that I would not only make it into regional orchestra but would also get the highest score. Because I had doubts about our deal, I practiced for the audition sometimes, but not rigorously. When I told him about my doubts, he was selling used laptops outside a Wal-Mart with Martin Luther King Jr. quotes on them. He reassured me that my time as a prodigy would surely come, then told me to stop looking for him.
Fine, I said. Just give me first chair and I’ll be happy.
Fine, the devil said, adjusting his white leopard-skin fedora.
He was right. I made it into regional orchestra—but I got last chair. They put me in the back next to the flutes. I didn’t even have a stand partner.
Tough break, the devil said.
The experience itself was a wonderful opportunity to spend a weekend playing beautiful music with my friends. To the audience, where we sat in the orchestra didn’t make a difference, as long as we all played our parts, at which I was mostly successful. But I still wanted to be first chair. After that first concert, I waited for the devil to make good on his side of the bargain, telling myself I would spontaneously become the best violinist to have lived—tomorrow, or next week, or sometime next fall, maybe. But I did start to practice more.
My orchestra teacher insisted that we, as developing violinists and musicians, should put enjoying the music before correct performance. He encouraged competition as a means of growth, but warned us about letting it get to ours heads. Rather than playing strictly classical, which the judges in music competitions always preferred, we played a variety of musical styles, including bluegrass, Cajun, jazz, mariachi, and country.
The band teacher, on the other hand, actively took measures to assure that her band received the highest rank possible in every single competition. I was in percussion for one year, during which she continually rewrote the percussion parts to make them easier to play correctly.
That year, the orchestra got a low score in competitions because we played challenging music that was beyond most of us. Meanwhile, the band received perfect scores, because the music changed to meet the students, rather than the other way around. I spent a lot of my time in orchestra faking playing because I hadn’t bothered to catch up with my fellow musicians. Years later, I realized that the band teacher was doing the same thing.
After the fourth year of not making it into the first violin section, I began to wonder if the devil actually knew what he was doing. Each year, I made it into regional orchestra, but in very low seats. I moved up a little my last year, which I suspect I owed entirely to a private violin tutor who helped me as best she could.
I certainly didn’t want to improve my skills. I wanted to be a virtuoso already, then and there. After years of not having one, I even started to miss my soul. It was starting to become more obvious to people that I didn’t have one: I had started taking Beat poet quotes out of context by writing them on my tennis shoes and reading articles on how to make myself more marketable for record labels.
I tried practicing more. While I practiced, the devil sat in my room playing a mold-colored kazoo and smoking cigarettes, encouraging me to live my dreams, reciting inspirational Steve Jobs quotes, and repeating that our bargain was about to kick in. His kazoo did not pair well with my out-of-tune practicing.
When I finally performed my solo for a judge, my score was the equivalent of a B-minus, which was actually a rank of Excellent. Above Excellent is Superior, and above that is Superior with Distinction. I was concertmaster that year because the best violinists had graduated, and under my mastery we got a rank of Good. Nobody gets below a Good, so it was Good in the sense that it could only have been worse if we hadn’t shown up. My own playing was passably Excellent, but my leadership was disastrously Good.
Tough break, the devil texted me from his flip phone. Don’t worry; in no time you’ll be the greatest violinist who ever lived.
By the time I was done with high school, I had not become a legendary violinist overnight. I’d been told that selling one’s soul to the devil would bring fame and fortune and felt like I’d been given an unfair bargain. It’s not that I needed a soul. Not having one actually made me feel like I could justify looking down on people who didn’t get my poetry. But I figured that my soul should have been worth something, and yet I had nothing to show for having sold it. So I told the devil I wanted to rescind our bargain.
He told me to wait a little longer, that the deal just hadn’t kicked in yet. I told him I didn’t believe him. He told me I would never be interesting if I had a soul, let alone a used one. I asked him what he had been using my soul for, at which point he offered to return it if I asked no more questions.
The devil had switched out his fedora for a beanie advertising an underground band I’d never heard of, and had taken to wearing large red ties and neon sneakers attached to his cloven hooves with staples and tape. We met two weeks before I went to college, in my high school parking lot next to a forest where the percussionists used to smoke. He handed back my soul, which I put in my wallet, and I tore up our contract guaranteeing my place in history. Someone else would have to be the next great virtuoso, someone more dedicated than I’d been. Someone with more integrity than I had.
The devil walked away into the forest and I walked back home, and we never saw each other again.
Keene Short is a creative writing MFA student at the University of Idaho. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Atticus Review, Longleaf Review, Waxwing, Wilderness House Literary Review, and elsewhere.